Pops history

Lengthy tradition of music on Lake Harriet explored in new book

Minneapolis Pops Orchestra
A new book tells the history of the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this summer though its concert season has been canceled due to the pandemic. Submitted photo

The Minneapolis Pops Orchestra’s summer concert season on the north shore of Lake Harriet was canceled this July for the first time in seven decades.

But the orchestra’s fans can revel in the pleasures of concerts past by reading a slim book recently published by flutist Cynthia Stokes, who has written a comprehensive history of the Pops that begins in 1888, more than 60 years before the orchestra was founded, when the first streetcar station on Lake Harriet served double duty as a concert venue.

Stokes, an ECCO resident, said she was inspired to document the history of the Pops to commemorate the orchestra’s 70th anniversary this year, and she was able to receive funding from the Minnesota Historical Society.

“I thought it’s time to get the history written down and celebrate this anniversary,” she said.

1927 band shell with audience
After previous pavilions were destroyed by fire and windstorm, a temporary bandstand was constructed in 1927 and stood until the current structure was completed in 1988. Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Pops

After the original structure was destroyed by fire in 1891, a pagoda pavilion was installed for audience members to watch orchestras and other entertainment acts perform on a floating structure on the lake. This pavilion was also destroyed by fire in 1903 and its successor was destroyed by a windstorm in 1925.

The modern-day bandshell didn’t rise until 1988, and after the Minneapolis Pops were founded in 1950, they played their first decades from a temporary structure built by the Park Board.

In the orchestra’s first years, summer concerts were performed up to four times per week on a budget largely funded by the Minnesota Players Union and the Minneapolis Park Board. The Pops’ founding conductor, Harrington Maddy, had played concerts on Lake Harriet for years and was known as “Mr. Music.”

While the Pops saw crowds of up to 6,000 in its early years, Stokes said, a good concert now brings a crowd of 2,000-3,000.

the Pops
In its early years, the Pops saw crowds of up to 6,000. The date of this photograph is unknown. Photos courtesy of the Minneapolis Pops

Funding comes from individual donors, businesses and government grants, and Stokes’ book’s proceeds will go directly to the orchestra.

“This is more concerts for the general public,” she said. “The people love the concerts, but often it’s the general public that are coming, not the wealthy people looking for a prestigious event.”

Eric Olsen, the Pops’ executive director, said he’s glad to have a permanent record of the orchestra’s past. “Things are forgotten, or lost in translation, when they’re not written down, so to have that history and that information on paper, in book form, is a wonderful resource,” he said.

Linden Hills resident John Gray said he and his wife, Kathy Kresge, discovered the Pops after dating long-distance when Kresge moved to Minneapolis from Seattle in 2001. “The day she arrived, the very first thing we did that night is we went to a Pops concert down at Lake Harriet, and we’ve been going ever since,” Gray said. The orchestra played at the couple’s wedding reception in 2006.

Minneapolis Pops Orchestra
A new book tells the history of the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this summer though its concert season has been canceled due to the pandemic. Submitted photo

Stokes said she started researching her book via newspaper archives and interviews with longtime Pops musicians she knew, but she had a breakthrough when she started talking to a woman named Leila Deneke who she sat next to at a Minnesota Opera concert and found out Deneke was the daughter of two former Pops players. “That was such a stroke of luck,” Stokes said.

Deneke put Stokes in touch with the son of former Pops musician Henry Kramer, who sent Stokes his father’s archives, including his unreleased memoir documenting his time in the Pops, which he joined for its second season in 1951.

“Because of the very humid summer evenings, I used an aluminum violin to play on instead of my fine Guadagnini, and I used to rap on the metal back of the violin with my bow when it came time to tune up with the orchestra,” Kramer wrote in his memoir, “Following the Beat.”

The book includes an appendix of concert programs, dating back to the early 1900s and to the Pops concert program from last summer, when the Pops celebrated their anniversary by playing a selection of songs from the Pops’ first season in 1950.

James Greco leads the Pops in concert.
Two children play around the bandstand in the 1960s as conductor James Greco leads the Pops in concert.

With attendance dropping in recent years, the Pops have placed greater focus on community engagement, adding a program for children where musicians volunteer in band and orchestra classes in local public schools and play regular concerts for the elderly at Nicollet Island.

“It’s very gratifying to see the enjoyment people get from hearing live orchestra concerts,” Stokes said. “Those people are so quiet and so attentive, and they really, really are enjoying the music.”

For the last three decades, Jere Lantz has led the Pops’ music program, serving as both the orchestra’s conductor and emcee.

“He has an amazing knowledge of trivia, of interesting facts about music, and he seems to really catch the audience’s attention before we play a piece,” Stokes said.

While times have changed, Stokes said, the nature of the Pops has not.

“It remains a group of 45 top-notch professional musicians playing a mix of classical and popular music,” she wrote in the book. “The mission of the Pops has always been to bring the power and the pleasure of live orchestra concerts performed by professional musicians to the Twin Cities community, free of charge.”

To purchase a copy of “The Minneapolis Pops Orchestra: A History,” go to mplspops.org/history.